Given ample research and strong support for helping children get off to a strong and healthy start, strengthening Texas pre-k programs will continue to be a key issue during the 2017 session of the Texas Legislature.
So far this session, attention has focused on the push to maintain full funding for the high-quality pre-k grant program established during the last session under HB 4. As we have pointed out, the introduced House and Senate budget bills would cut pre-k grant funding. A revised version of the House budget moves the pre-k funding out of the high-quality grant program, although we are early in the budget process. We are urging legislators to fully fund the grant program by providing $236 million over the next biennium.
In addition to the funding debate, House and Senate members have introduced a handful of smart bills this session that would boost access to quality early childhood programs.
1. HB 1389 (Rep. Giddings) would set a maximum class size of 22 children in pre-k. Texas currently has no maximum class sizes or teacher-student ratios in state-funded public school pre-k programs, a key reason Texas annually gets low marks for quality in the National Institute for Early Education (NIEER) national rating scale. The bill mirrors a recommendation of a TEA-commissioned study from last year, which pointed out that manageable class sizes and teacher-child ratios produce better student outcomes as teachers have more time to pay attention to the needs of each child and create effective group learning environments.
2. HB 188 (Rep. Bernal) would require all districts receiving funds through the new HB 4 High Quality Pre-K Grant Program to maintain a teacher-child ratio of 1:10, which is the national best practice. Currently, the HB 4 grant program requires districts to “attempt to maintain” a teacher-child ratio of 1:11.
3. HB 196 (Rep. Mary González) and SB 35 (Sen. Zaffirini) would expand the current half-day pre-k program to full-day and increase access to more four year olds who could benefit from pre-k. Bills to support full-day pre-k have been introduced for years in Texas for good reason: research clearly shows that full-day pre-k produces stronger outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged students and Dual Language Learners. In addition, working families are more likely to enroll in full-day pre-k to accommodate their workday schedules.
4. HB 357 (Rep. Huberty) would increase access to Texas pre-k by adding the children of First Responders who were posthumously awarded the Star of Texas Award to the eligibility criteria. Currently, four-year-olds (and in some districts three-year-olds) are eligible for public school pre-k if they are economically disadvantaged, English Language Learners, homeless, have a parent in the military, or have been in foster care.
5. SB 818 (Sen. Watson) focuses on boosting nutrition, physical activity and screen time standards in child care programs at licensed centers and homes to ensure more kids get what their parents want -- nutritious food and active play time -- during the day. Helping young kids develop their minds and muscles during the day gets kids ready for school and lifelong health.
We look forward to working with legislators on these and other critical early childhood education issues this session!